There are a great many ways in which Birdie lives on – and others in which it is very much a creature of its time. I didn’t post on Friday because I attended the Middletown High School Drama Club’s outrageously fabulous production of the musical.
Here’s a brief synopsis for those who don’t know the story. The couple sitting next to me who were about my age did not. Conrad Birdie, an Elvis Presley stand-in, is about to join the Army. As propounded by his manager/song writer, the story is that he volunteered. The truth is that he fought long and hard to escape the clutches of Uncle Sam. Facing monetary disaster and the loss of their cash cow, Birdie’s manager’s feisty but seriously exploited secretary on the fly concocts a plan to have Birdie share a last kiss with one of his millions of screaming teen girls fans.
Here’s my review with some observations about how the book doesn’t always fly in 2015.
As mentioned, this was a spectacular Birdie. The star was Cameron Steadman as the manager’s oppressed secretary. She can dance. She has comic timing. Most of all, she can sing with a voice that in a year or two will be ready for stage or musical production in whatever form exists two years from now. Everyone should hope that it’s the stage so a live audience can experience the live performance.
Albert Peterson, the boss/songwriter and failed English teacher as played by Benjamin Henderson, carried his part with elegance and panache – and nerdiness. He was almost a match for Cameron.
As for Conrad, who doesn’t appear in person until well into the first act, it wasn’t just the screaming teens who were buzzing. I thought Isaiah Thompkins was a ringer – a twenty-something guy brought in from who knows where. Turns out he is a senior and a polymath as in a football player with a brain, headed for Brown University. He’d never acted before, according to my seatmates.
He reminds of a friend who was accepted at three medical schools and three architecture schools. Then my friend sang at a wedding, and the bandleader offered him a job. The rest of us were seriously jealous. Isaiah’s friends – mostly jocks by their size and letter jackets – seemed genuinely happy for him, if bewildered at a side of him they’d never witnessed before.
This Conrad with the twitchy lip and the swivel hips received a boost from costume designer Judy Kalinowski. She and her helpers (I know there were many) re-created the tough-guy wife-beater T and tight jeans, the over the top jumpsuit in silver, the tiger-striped too-short bathrobe, and the Army uniform. Fascinating that before his induction, he’d already received a sergeant’s stripes with “rocker,” all in glitter.
Two actresses alternated the role of Kim MacAfee, who is supposed to receive the kiss. The evening I saw it Danielle Berry served up a cute take on the girl on the verge of womanhood.
Hugo, the boyfriend who has to compete with Birdie, along with Kim’s parents, Harry and Doris MacAfee, provided the kind of support that stars pray for. Kate Connelly as Albert’s mother, Mae, became the perfect foil for Rose without completely upstaging everyone.
Two special shout-outs: to my neighbor the trumpeter Ryan Vecchitto – you made the singers sound terrific! And to my nephew Tony Petruzzello – you are the best Trainman ever!
Now here are the cultural problems. Rose is Rose Alvarez in this production. In the original she was Rose Grant, played by Chita Rivera. Both are from Allentown, Pennsylvania, but one has the feeling that Rose Alvarez has less of a problem finding her way back to her nonexistent Spanish “roots.”
Almost no one in the audience got the jokes about Mussolini or “the Jerries.” Interesting that no one thinks that’s an epithet any more. I doubt anyone under 50 knew who Ingrid Bergman was, and I had to look up the joke that confused Mussolini with her husband Roberto Rosselini.
The biggest cultural divide today comes with Birdie’s military induction. When Elvis received his draft notice, the Cold War had turned frigid. There was a serious possibility that men (yes, all men) could be deployed in huge numbers against the Soviet Union and against China. So when the teenyboppers sang “Bye Bye Birdie” there was a real risk that Private Conrad Birdie could face actual bullets on an actual battlefield. With our volunteer military and greater remove, maybe we should think about the deeper implications of saying goodbye to Birdie.